The Curse of Beauty
New York Times bestseller!
This is a book about a naked woman, once the most famous nude in America. It is a story of the extraordinary success her beauty brought her and the terrible, tragic price she paid for it.
Many readers will recognize Audrey Munson, even without knowing her name. She was America’s first supermodel. Many will already have seen her “most perfect form,” for she stands with her celebrated dimples on full display in the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan. She became the artist’s model of choice in early twentieth-century New York at the time many of the city’s finest buildings, bridges, and monuments were built. Munson stands atop the Wisconsin state capitol and she is reputedly the model for Winged Liberty on the “Mercury Dime” that found its way into the pocket of every American. In 1915 she was chosen by the sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder as the model for most of the sculptures on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (like the world’s fair). Munson was catapulted to a new level of celebrity and she moved to California to work in the fledgling film industry. She made silent movies and became the first leading lady to appear naked in a major motion picture, making her not only a supermodel, but also a sex goddess.
Munson’s beauty, though, was also her curse, exactly as a fortuneteller predicted in her youth. Her looks won her entry to high society, but at a devastating cost. She dated the rich young millionaires of the fashionable Newport colony, but could never hope for acceptance as a wife. Her mother blamed her woes on her relationship with a scion of the Vanderbilt clan, which broke up his engagement to the daughter of Eleanor Roosevelt’s aunt. Sucked into the social swirl, she became hooked on drugs.
In 1919 Munson was living with her mother in a boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins, who was also treating Munson. Though much older than she, he fell in love with Munson, and after she rebuked his advances for being a married man, he then killed his wife and hanged himself in his prison cell.
Munson fled to upstate New York and became a recluse on a farm, becoming increasingly unwell. She tried to commit suicide herself. Then, she attacked a farmhand with a pitchfork to stop him beating a horse and her mother committed her to an insane asylum.
She remained there for 65 years until her death in 1996 at the age of 104 and is now buried in an unmarked grave. Her name is Audrey Munson. This is her tragic story.
James Bone is the former longtime New York bureau chief of The Times of London newspaper. For almost a quarter of the century, he covered every major event in New York: Whether it was a celebrity scandal or a mafia trial, a Wall Street fraud or a record art sale, a high society wedding or a terrorist attack, he was there. He comes from a family of generations of artists on both sides, some of whom were active at the same time as the sculptors and painters in this book. He has reported from dozens of countries and some non-countries, from Afghanistan to Antarctica. His most recent posting was as The Times correspondent in Rome, Italy.